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Transvestism in Film  
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On the other hand, queer postmodernism has appropriated iconic images of drag so wantonly that we tend to forget where they actually originate. For example, the indelible image of Marlene Dietrich performing cabaret in a man's top hat and tails has become retroactively synonymous with queer gender-bending, yet we should not conveniently forget that Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930) was, after all, a film about heterosexual masochism.

Gender and Sexual Polarities

Today, drag has become so commonplace in both straight and queer culture that it has become unwise--if not also impossible and simply tiresome--to pick out "good" drag from the "bad," to identify pro-queer and homophobic representations of drag according to a positive/negative grading scale as black-and-white as the female/male polarity that drag is supposed to confuse.

Still, when it comes to a mainstream film like Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (1982), the jury seems split along lines of sexuality--whereas the "straight establishment" heaped it with awards, it would not be difficult to criticize the film for perpetuating stereotypical definitions of what are essentially "male" and "female" characteristics.

In one sense, this criticism of the Tootsie, or, if you prefer, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) scenario, which supposes that a heterosexual male can become a better heterosexual by discovering his "inner" femininity, is certainly valid. But, while such films are easy to pick on, to insist that all transvestism must be ultimately queer is equally myopic.

Sexual transformations do not always follow from revelations of gender; and, because we cannot delegitimize the identities of heterosexual transvestites, it is not unthinkable that certain acts of drag are indeed only about the heterosexual surfaces of gender and not the queer depths of sexuality.

Similarly, audiences disagree on whether or not the transvestism of Neil Jordan's over-hyped The Crying Game (1993), which hinges on the revelation of a transvestite's penis, was an elaborate narrative metaphor for the unstable nature of sexual and national identity, or was basically a homophobic gimmick hiding beneath the trendy clothes of a middlebrow art film.

Still, the acute sensitivity to clichés or homophobias possibly underlying drag is understandable considering the silly, pseudo-Freudian history of evil transvestites in acclaimed films such as Hitchcock's Psycho (1980) and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980), films which place their fashionable transvestisms within a sophomoric understanding of Freud.

Avant-garde Cinema and Cult Films

Before the advent of today's openly queer cinema, the avant-garde cinema, and later the cult film, had offered select, marginal audiences less veiled and more clearly sexualized visions of drag, where cross-dressing was more often an active lifestyle than a passive pathology.

From Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953), which offered an autobiographical account of the director's addiction to angora sweaters, to Jack Smith's once-banned underground classic Flaming Creatures (1963), from the endless parade of narcissistic drag queens that issued from Andy Warhol's "factory" to professional transvestite Divine becoming a new definition of radical chic in John Waters' Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and especially Female Trouble (1974), transvestism became synonymous not merely with camp but with a celebration of deviance and political marginality in themselves.

Meanwhile, semi-commercial cult films such as Richard Benner's Outrageous! (1977) gradually pushed sympathetic (and gay) transvestite characters into a mainstream cinema that would in the 1980s embrace Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), writer Harvery Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (1988), and Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria, a campy remake of Reinhold Schunzel's celebrated 1933 classic.

But with the belated success of Jim Sharman's Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the mainstreaming of the transvestite cult film also brought with it a fallacious sense of democracy: the transvestite's nascent queerness was no longer a political statement automatically opposed to the mainstream, but now a user-friendly game of surfaces the middle-class could temporarily engage before returning to "normal."

European Cinema

When we consider transvestite films internationally, however, we get quite a different picture from what North American cinema has, or has not, offered us.

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